How do you remember the things that are important to you?
In the olden days, people tied a piece of string around a finger to recall the commitments they have made. Today’s forgetful people are more likely to use an alarm on their smartphone’s productivity app. My own personal tricks involve hanging my car keys on a hook by the back door, sleeping in my workout clothes, and leaving my Bible open next to a cereal bar each night. No matter the method, people arrange their surroundings to remind themselves of the commitments they might otherwise forget.
This pattern makes it all the more interesting to discover how God sets up reminders for himself. John describes God’s throne as surrounded by “a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (Revelation 4:3). Just as David provided Solomon with colorful stones for the temple (1 Chronicles 29:2), it seems that God’s throne is surrounded with color to remind himself of something.
The Rainbow from Earth’s Perspective
To understand why a rainbow appears in the Bible’s final book, we should look at the Bible’s first book — Genesis — where the rainbow first appears in chapter 9. After using an ark to bring Noah, his family, and the animals through the flood, God made a covenant with them. As a part of that covenant, he gave them a sign: a bow. God said, “I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13). This rainbow signifies that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15).
The word “bow” used in this passage is the same term for a war or hunting bow (see Genesis 21:20; 27:3; Joshua 24:12; 2 Samuel 22:35). So when the Bible describes the Lord hanging up his bow, it pictures God putting away his weapon of war and committing to peace with his people (though he punishes those who oppose him, see Psalm 21:12).
Also, consider where God placed his bow. By hanging his bow up “in the cloud,” God reestablished the broken boundaries of creation. When God flooded the earth, he undid the boundary he made between the waters above and the waters below (Genesis 1:7). This unmade another boundary God created — the boundary between the waters and the dry ground (Genesis 1:9–10). After the flood, God’s creation order, complete with his boundaries from the second and third day of creation, were reestablished (Genesis 8:2–3). By hanging up his bow in the cloud, God reminds himself of his commitment at the very boundary that he has newly promised to uphold.
The Rainbow from Heaven’s Perspective
While God’s people can take comfort from seeing a rainbow, the Bible tells us that the purpose of the sign is actually to remind God. “When the bow is in the clouds,” the Lord said, “I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:13–16).
This original context of the rainbow helpfully colors our understanding of Revelation 4. We now see the rainbow from heaven’s perspective (compare Revelation 4:3 with Ezekiel 1:28). Here, in the very place God dwells and rules, he has surrounded himself with this reminder. Like us, God has surrounded himself with a reminder of the commitment he has made to the people that he loves.
This clarifies passages in the Bible where it says that God will “not remember” believers’ sins (Isaiah 43:25, Psalm 79:8). How can an omniscient God “not remember” the sins of his people? It is because God does not “forget” sin in the same way that we forget things. We forget things when our neurological synapses fail, but God does not forget things because of failure. When the Lord chooses to “not remember” our sin, he is instead choosing to remember his covenant not to destroy his people. He sees his colorful reminder and remembers.
By surrounding his throne with a rainbow, God has surrounded himself with the reminder of his covenantal goodness to us.
Noah was not the final answer to the problem of sin. In fact, Noah’s story unravels in much the same way that Adam’s story unraveled: what begins with divine blessing and animals deteriorates with misused fruit, nakedness, and sibling rivalry. But just as the story of the Bible does not end with Noah, the story of redemption does not end with the rainbow.
The Rainbow and the Lamb
The direction of God’s bow points to God’s decisive answer. As Sally Lloyd-Jones wrote in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “God’s war bow was not pointing down at his people. It was pointing up, into the heart of heaven” (47). When God saw the sin of his people and considered the wrath that sin deserved, his war bow pointed at his own heart, his Son.
Later in Revelation, this point becomes explicit. In Revelation 10, we see a messenger from God — a being that many biblical scholars identify as the Lord Jesus. Whether this is Christ himself or an angelic being, we are clearly meant to think of the Lord when we read John’s description (compare the descriptions in Revelation 10:1 and Revelation 1:15–16).
The Bible describes this mighty Christ representative as having “a rainbow over his head” (Revelation 10:1). This should encourage God’s people. Like the story of the exodus, the angel of death has come to judge the world. But because of the blood of the Lamb, because of the rainbow reminder of God’s promise over his head, God’s people need not fear. God the Son has paid the penalty for our sin, so God the Father will not remember our sin. He remembers his covenant with us — his promise to do us good — instead.
Because God is God, he cannot forget; because he is loving, he will not forget.